In the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, a team of curators and conservators made a new discovery when they were examining Vincent van Gogh’s "Olive Trees". What they found in the masterpiece was not any hidden secrets but something rather unexpected – a dead grasshopper with its thorax and abdomen missing.
The team had been doing research on the 104 French paintings in the Nelson’s collection. Conservator Mary Schafer was looking at the oil painting under magnification when she founded the grasshopper in the work’s lower foreground.
"It's not unusual to find this kind of material in paint," Ms Schafer said. "But the grasshopper's discovery connects viewers with van Gogh's painting style, and the moment in which he made the work."
Schafer was curious if the grasshopper could shed light on the season Van Gogh painted "Olive Trees".
The grasshopper is camouflaged in the brown and green colours in the foreground of the painting.
Vincent van Gogh was known for painting outdoors. In 1885, he wrote about the challenges of painting outdoors in a letter to his brother, Theo.
“I must have picked up a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand ... when one carries a team of them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them,” Van Gogh wrote.
Self portrait of Vincent van Gogh. National Gallery of Australia.
“Van Gogh worked outside in the elements,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where “Olive Trees” resides, “and we know that he, like other plein air artists, dealt with wind and dust, grass and trees, and flies and grasshoppers.”
Another "Olive Trees" painting by van Gogh. The artist painted at least 18 paintings of the "Olive Trees" series, mostly in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889.
Van Gogh took his own life in 1890, a year after “Olive Trees” was completed in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City
The Nelson left the painting intact without removing the insect. So next time when you visit the museum, you can try to spot the grasshopper, though it is hardly noticeable through casual observation.